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2017 Top Picks in Music

With apologies to Lorde, Drake, Ed Sheeran, SZA, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and several other very good hit-makers of the Top 40 ...

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Highlights from a Year in Music - 2016

Wow! New and revived music thrilled again this year with a string of live shows that began with Todd Rundgren at The Fillmore, Rickie Lee Jones at The Mystic and Justin Bieber at Staples Center, and continued with Peter Wolf at City Winery in Nashville, Joe Jackson at the refurbished UC Theatre in Berkeley, Jackson Browne at San Jose Civic, Peter Frampton’s sit-down living room concert at Herbst Theater, Tom Odell at Social Club SF, the stunning return of Yusuf/Cat Stevens at Davies Symphony Hall, and Kronos Quartet with Bruce Cockburn at KALW’s 75th Anniversary Party.

Here are a few recordings that made a mark this year (not necessarily in any order):

1.    David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia). This haunting finale from one of the greatest artists of his or any generation is a compelling reminder of the depth, soul and influence he aspired to and gave to others. Check out the “Blackstar” video and “Lazarus” can be added to the cannon.

2.     Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Concord Records). Clever lyrics, challenging rhythms, and immersive sonic adventures only begin to describe this new collection by a songwriter still working at the peak of his talents. Hard to beat “Proof of Love” or “Cool Papa Bell.”

3.     Peter Wolf – A Cure for Loneliness (Concord Records). J. Geils frontman returned in high form with the Midnight Travelers for a soulful collection of fresh, poignant and rocking songs, including “Rolling On” and a souped-up bluegrass take on “Love Stinks.”

4.     Elton John – Wonderful Crazy Night (Mercury/Island). In a nod to his 1970s sound, this lively set burns bright especially on “Blue Wonderful” and “I’ve Got Two Wings,” and of course, T-Bone Burnett and Bernie Taupin both have a steady hand throughout.

5.     The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light (Warner Bros.). Producer Jay Joyce brought new electricity and verve to the evolution of this stellar band. Vocal arrangements soar over a deep driving core. Standouts include “City of Angeles,” “Colors” and “Signs of Light.” Video for "All We Ever Knew."

6.     Suzanne Vega – Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers (Amanuensis Productions). Inspired by the writings of McCullers, this album of poetic songs, written with the prolific Duncan Sheik, reminds how simple arrangements topped with Vega’s unmistakable voice and purity of tone wins every time.

7.     John Legend – Darkness and Light (Columbia). The contemporary pop/R&B master takes a break from his warm and fuzzy hit machine with the urgent “Love Me Now.” Besides the Chance the Rapper “Penthouse Floor” rap (rant?), spare arrangements and Legends’ indelible voice shine throughout.

8.     Dawes – We’re All Gonna Die (Hub Records). On their fifth outing, Dawes has stepped up their game opening with gritty riffs then turning to delicate melodies on a dime. The mix is rich and rewarding throughout with tinges of old school L.A. rock with modern moods. Standouts are “We’re All Gonna Die” and “Less Than Five Miles Away.”

9.     Shawn Mendes – Illuminate (Island). The young heartthrob of the moment has turned out a sophomore release to match his worldwide pop stardom. Filled with biting hooks, heart-on-the-sleeve pronouncements and fragile cries of love and agony, this is fun Top 10 pop. See hits “Mercy” and Treat You Better” or punchy “Honest.”

10.  Andrew Bird – Are You Serious (Loma Vista Recordings). Quirky, thoughtful and passionate come to mind with Bird’s latest offering. Thundering bass, natural percussion, and a reedy tenor pepper this album. Try “Roma Fade,” “Saints Preservus” and 'Valleys of the Young.” And who else whistles anymore?

Footnotes for further listening

Special mentions are in order for two pop traditionalists: Adele for “25” and Barbra Streisand for “Encores.”

David Crosby quietly released the pitch-perfect “Lighthouse” and Leonard Cohen’s final release “You Want It Darker” finds him at his best.

Rolling Stones’ “Blue & Lonesome” is a return to form with a solid romp in the blues.

Best retro find: Stanley Clarke's "Journey to Love" (Epic) from 1975; notably, cuts dedicated to John Coltrane.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Stars Collide in MTC's August: Osage County

The San Francisco Bay Area premier staging (the Broadway production toured in 2009) of Tracy Letts’ TONY Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County celebrating the opening of Marin Theatre Company’s 50th season does not disappoint. The stunning Broadway run of this new American classic that was something to behold, a transfer from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, with scene-crushing Deanna Dunagan as the venomous and hilarious mother flailing through a sumptuous naturalistic set.

In the much more intimate house at MTC, Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis’ sturdy take on this dramedy is worthy of the weight that this tortured family endures across three acts when the patriarch Beverly Weston (superbly set up by Will Marchetti) goes missing.

The family gathers to assess the crisis at a large country house outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where the past haunts the present and future. With obvious echoes of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill, Letts’ play unfolds in unexpected ways. The wife, Violet, played with comic-tragic verve by Sherman Fracher, is a cancer-stricken, pill-popping mess to Beverly’s alcoholic poetic musings. She only sobers up in Act Two after the elder daughter swoops in to attempt a takeover from her outpost in Colorado along with the family clan from near and far.

In-laws, cousins, grandchildren and the three sisters (and the men in their lives) all join in to reveal, expose and exorcise old wounds and love in a full-throttle attack and celebration of the American Dream. Debates on the beauty of aging women and daggers thrown at the “Greatest Generation” are particularly comic and biting.

J.B. Wilson’s set is, at first, a maze of Modernist stairs and platforms, but is revealed through Kurt Landisman’s discreet lighting to be a frame to showcase what emotions hide in the shadows, how relationships evolve in stages and how aspiration can be met with missteps and unpredictable twists of fate.

The cast (all local favorites) bring out the script’s finer points essential to this ensemble piece. Even supporting characters are critical in this work, notably Charlie and Mattie Fae (Robert Sicular and Anne Darragh), who fuel their scenes with keen intensity and realism. The elder sister Barbara, features the nuanced Arwen Anderson as a full-fledged antidote and mirror of her mother.

For those who only saw the Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts film version, this a true reminder of how the stage version of this story outshines the gloss of film with an emotional impact only possible under the wings of the right actors and the pro team behind this production. Indeed, “Here we go round the prickly pear,” as T.S. Eliot is referenced in this world of the Westons, “This is the way the world ends.”

Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. Through October 2, Tuesday-Sunday, 7:00 pm, Sat-Sun matinees at 1:00 pm. $22-60. 415-388-5208. marintheatre.org.